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The Science of Hitting
The Science of Hitting
Articles (708) 

Some Thoughts on FedEx

A closer look at the package delivery company

January 08, 2019 | About:

In 2018, I spent a few weeks researching package delivery and supply chain management companies FedEx (FDX) and UPS (UPS). Here’s what I tweeted when I finished the work:

“Finished up research on UPS and FDX this week. Honestly, I found the exercise more difficult than I would've assumed going in. Think they are both reasonable investments at current levels, but I do not have an overwhelming level of conviction on that.”

Recent price action has led me to refocus my attention (UPS is down 25% and FedEx declined 40% over the past year). On headline valuation metrics, the stocks look cheap too; FedEx, for example, trades around 10x forward earnings on non-GAAP guidance. In this article, I'll walk through some of the positives and negatives that I see with FedEx (I will probably write an article about UPS later).

Let’s start with the positives.

First, FedEx has significant scale. In fiscal 2018, the company moved more than 14 million packages a day and generated $65 billion in revenues. In addition, the business has been growing at a decent clip, with average daily volumes nearly doubling over the past decade (6.6% CAGR). FedEx has been helped by growth in its U.S. Ground business, where it has taken market share for 19 consecutive years (ground volumes have roughly quadrupled over the past 15 years, to 8.3 million packages a day).

This scale has resulted in efficiencies that enable FedEx (and UPS) to offer services that are difficult for competitors to match; as an example, analysts at Stifel, Nicholas estimated in 2013 that regional carriers account for less than 2% of the market. In addition, that position appears well cemented. Consider the example of DHL, which made a big push to compete in the U.S. parcel market in the early 2000s (following the $1 billion acquisition of Airborne Express in 2003). At the time, DHL argued they would bring “much-needed competition to a market that up until now has been dominated by a long-held duopoly.” But things didn’t go as planned. After five years and billions in losses, DHL capitulated and shuttered the business. At that time, DHL Express CEO John Mullen said the firm had struggled against the overwhelming brand recognition of UPS and FedEx. Another DHL executive put it more bluntly: “It is very difficult to build a network and compete profitably against well-entrenched companies, as we found out.”

Another positive for FedEx is that its business is spread across a large base: No single customer accounts for more than 3% of FedEx’s revenues. As we think about the future of the business and where problems may lie, lack of customer-specific risk is noteworthy.

Finally, as I noted in the introduction, FedEx trades around 10x forward earnings (on non-GAAP EPS). Note that the forward price-to-earnings multiple has been about 50% higher, on average, over the past five years (around 15x). If it turns out that the current fears are unfounded, the multiple could move much higher.

Alright, now to some of the negatives.

Let’s start with where I just left off: valuation. Non-GAAP earnings add back integration charges related to TNT Express (which I will discuss in a moment). My problem is FedEx acquired TNT in 2016 and has taken on significant costs to integrate the business (the initial plan called for $700 million to $800 million in expenses; the most recent update called for ~$1.5 billion of cumulative integration expenses through next year). At some point I don’t think these costs should be considered one-off, nor immaterial - especially since management stated on the last conference call that they may incur additional TNT integration costs beyond fiscal 2020. The same goes for costs related to certain legal matters, which FedEx management adds back to non-GAAP EPS (admittedly this has been smaller and less frequent).

But the bigger issue as it relates to valuation is cash flows. Over the past five years, depreciation and amortization has been $13.9 billion (cumulative). On the other hand, capital expenditures have been $23.5 billion. The gap between D&A and capex has been nearly $2 billion a year, on average, over the past five years. That’s over a period where adjusted net income was roughly $3 billion a year. Said differently, FCF has been around $6 per share, putting the FCF multiple well north of 20x. This is a much different picture than net income. Personally, I have found differentiating between maintenance and growth capex to be difficult. That’s a long way of saying that adjusted EPS may not be the right metric to use to value FedEx.

My second concern is the company’s lackluster results following the $4.8 billion acquisition of TNT Express, a large European express delivery company. FedEx has publicly stated that it expected Express segment operating income (inclusive of TNT) to increase $1.2 billion and $1.5 billion from 2017 to 2020. But for a number of reasons, TNT has lagged expectations (including the 2017 NotPetya cyber attack that significantly affected the company’s operations and cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars). On the most recent call, management admitted they will not achieve the profit target. Based on some additional commentary, it doesn’t sound like we should expect the results to meaningfully improve in the coming quarters either (Express segment operating income was "significantly below the business plan" in the first half of fiscal 2019).

Finally, there’s the lingering cloud of Amazon’s presence in the delivery business. This has been the most difficult part of the story to get my arms around. Note that Amazon spent $26 billion on shipping costs over the past year. It clearly has an incentive to do whatever it can to ensure that it is operating as efficiently as possible. Over the past few years, it has worked to cut out middlemen and to use last-mile services offered by the United States Postal Service (Goldman Sachs analysts estimate that USPS offers 70% lower rates on domestic shipments, on average, versus UPS and FedEx). The question is whether they’ll stop here or if Amazon has larger ambitions in the space. This quote from a former Amazon executive is what keeps UPS and FedEx shareholders up at night:

“I fully expect Amazon to build out a logistics supply chain that others can use. Over the next five years? I doubt it. Over 10 or 15 years? Oh yeah.”

My understanding is that this has already happened in some countries. For example, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said the following in his 2013 shareholder letter: “We’ve created our own fast, last-mile delivery network in the U.K., where commercial carriers couldn’t support our peak volumes.” A few years later at the Recode conference, Bezos implied that the company now delivers 50% of its own volumes in the U.K. Clearly they are handling more than peak package volumes.

But I struggle to see how that would happen in the U.S. The cost to rebuild the FedEx and UPS networks would be astronomical. Goldman analysts did a deep dive last year and concluded that this feat would cost north of $100 billion (to give you a sense of what they would need to commit to, FedEx has 650 planes, 150,000 trucks, 400,000 employees and 4,800 operating facilities around the world). Also noteworthy is that FedEx spent $40 billion on capex over the past 10 years. This is an asset-intensive business. Is committing tens of billions of dollars to rebuild these networks Amazon’s highest and best use of capital? The investment required to get to scale – in terms of time and money – would be significant. And success is far from assured (again, see DHL). If Amazon's goal is to simply replicate what UPS and FedEx have already built (as opposed to a radically new approach like they took with AWS), I don’t think it makes a ton of sense.

This quote from a 2014 Wall Street Journal article sums up why I think that is the case: “Industry observers say it will be difficult for Amazon to match the efficiency of UPS or FedEx in more than a handful of U.S. markets, simply because it will be delivering fewer packages over a wider area.”

Here’s where I’m at on Amazon at this point: Can it selectively insource some work (like sortation) and lean more heavily on the USPS and regional carriers to pull volume from FedEx and UPS? Yes. But can Amazon take the next step and become an "all-in" logistics company serving residential customers and businesses? That’s a more audacious feat – and as importantly, one that does not appear to further the goals of Amazon’s e-commerce business. Time will tell if the “Shipping with Amazon” service expands beyond its current scope, but I’m still skeptical at this point.

I’ll close on Amazon with this comment from Citi analyst Christian Weatherbee:

“The trigger we’ve consistently looked for from the company as a warning signal has been asset commitment. To date, the company hasn’t made a meaningful push into the true transportation asset ownership we believe is necessary to be a competitor.”


Where does that leave us? I like that FedEx’s stock price has been crushed. And I think the company still has a competitive moat that is unlikely to be breached in the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, I have concerns about the level of capital expenditures and pension contributions, both of which limit their ability to pay dividends and repurchase shares (they've still done a fair amount of both, but with help from incremental debt and a higher leverage ratio).

In addition, management’s primary long-term financial target (10-15% annualized EPS growth) appears unrealistic. Something closer to what we’ve seen over the past decade (a mid-single digit EPS CAGR) seems more reasonable to me. For now, I’m staying on the sidelines.

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About the author:

The Science of Hitting
I desire to own high-quality businesses for the long-term. In the words of Charlie Munger, my preferred approach is "patience followed by pretty aggressive conduct." I run a concentrated portfolio, with the top five positions accounting for the majority of its value. In the eyes of a businessman, I believe this is sufficient diversification.

Rating: 5.0/5 (3 votes)



400club - 1 year ago    Report SPAM

Capex is were it got me as well. "We expect approximately 30% of capital expenditures in 2019 to be designed for growth initiatives"... It seems their Capex is more recurring (structural) than I initially antecipated... On the sidelines as well, hard pass... Best of wishes, glad you are writing more this year!

The Science of Hitting
The Science of Hitting - 1 year ago    Report SPAM

400club - One of the key questions in my mind is whether volume growth and net pricing can become more balanced going forward (with that said, it's hard for me to get a clean read around mix shift to areas like SmartPost, so it isn't "correct" to just look at reveue per parcel IMO). But recent commentary has suggested more focus on this dynamic so we'll see what happens. And thanks for the kind words! Be on the lookout for additional articles :)

Balajisridharan0 - 1 year ago    Report SPAM

Interesting take on Amazon Prime Air -- one of the disruptors that keeps me from valuing FedEx is the impact of Amazon. In my opinion, Amazon does not have to replicate every single network with FedEx has. There are two points that makes valuing FedEx tough for me: a. If Amazon introduces last mile shipment into selected dense areas, the more profitable and volume dense segments of the market will open up for customers to sign up with Amazon. 10% of the network will give a multiple of that coverage to Amazon. b. Pricing power -- FedEx and UPS have maintained rational pricing in the last decade or so. How will that change with Amazon in the game? (think similar to AWS cloud pricing)


The Science of Hitting
The Science of Hitting - 1 year ago    Report SPAM

B - Fair points. I completely agree that Amazon can handle last mile for their own packages in dense areas (they're already doing it). But to your larger point, I think there is some concern that this can try to replicate the networks by cobbling together their own infrastructure, as well as by relying on ISP's and other shippers (USPS, regionals, etc). What I'm not sure about is whether the economics are better - or even comparable - in that case. And despite much talk about pricing power from UPS / FDX (and their published rate increases at year-end are impressive), I don't see much net pricing actually flowing through the P&L (look at the mix between volume and pricing in the contribution to revenue growth over the past ten years). As importantly, their margins and returns on invested capital are not as great as one might assume if they didn't look closely at the financials for the "duopoly". So that's a long way of saying that I hear you, but I'm not so sure! Thanks for the comment :)

Dernek - 1 year ago    Report SPAM

I believe competition from Amazon regarding logistics is overblown. DHL tried and failed to compete with Fedex and UPS, and DHL is logistics company. Although, it is much smaller company than Amazon with less resources, they had hard time penetrating Fedex and UPS moat.

This reminds me of auto parts resellers like O'Reilly and Auto Zone when they got punished in 2017 after Wall Street downgraded them because of fear of Amazon entering their auto parts domain.

By the way, nicely writen article.

The Science of Hitting
The Science of Hitting - 1 year ago    Report SPAM

Dernek - Thanks for the kind words! I think we are on the same page :)

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